Buddhism and counselling

British Journal of Guidance & Counselling

Vol. 21 No.1 Jan.1993


Copyright by British Journal of Guidance & Counselling

The relevance of the principles and practices of Buddhism to the field of counseling is discussed. Buddhist techniques have already been used by the helping professions in many settings (e.g. Japan, Sri Lanka). The extension of their use to a wider range of settings, and to a wider group of clients, is both feasible and desirable. In addition to the obvious relevance of Buddhist techniques to clients who have a Buddhist background, it is argued that they have a wider applicability. As Buddhism espouses the notion of a productive and healthy lay life, it offers ways not only of dealing with problems and difficulties, but also of improving psychological well-being in general. Examples are cited of relevant Buddhist techniques and their application. It is argued that, once systematically evaluated, many of these could profitably be incorporated into the repertoire of techniques used in present-day counseling and therapy. The value and utility of techniques and approaches found in religious and spiritual traditions in the context of therapy and counselling are recognised by many present-day writers and practitioners (Mikulas, 1983). Many see the arena of counselling as a broad field, into which ideas and practices from different sources can and should be incorporated as necessary. Given the diversity of clients that one is called upon to help, and the wide variety of problems and predicaments that they bring, it is natural that practitioners turn to a diversity of sources in search of the right concepts and techniques in a given situation. Buddhism has been used particularly widely in this way. Several present-day therapy settings have used Buddhist techniques and ideas, and the reports available suggest a positive and fruitful outcome. For example, Kishimoto (1985) has reported on the use of Zen Buddhist techniques for neurotic patients in Japan, and there are reports on the use of Early Buddhist techniques with groups of alcoholics and drug addicts in Kandy, Sri Lanka (e.g. de Silva and Samarasinghe, 1985). The relevance of Buddhism to counselling There are several ways in which Buddhism can be relevant to the practice of counselling. The most obvious is the need to find suitable techniques in counselling Buddhist clients, to whom many of the Western techniques may seem alien and therefore be less acceptable. The problems inherent in using techniques developed in the industrialised West with client populations from a different cultural background are now well-recognised (e.g. d'Ardenne and Mahtani, 1989; Ward, 1983). The attitude of optimism that prevailed among therapists and counsellors some decades ago - that good techniques will always work, irrespective of whom they are applied to - is no longer widely held. An approach or a technique has to be seen by the client as making sense, and has to fit into his/her overall life view, in order that he/she may comply fully with therapeutic instructions. Such compliance is a necessary condition for the success of the intervention. The literature has numerous examples of client-technique mismatch and its negative consequences, and - conversely - of the benefits of matching client and technique. Singh and Oberhummer (1980), for example, describe the successful use of the Hindu concept of Karma Yoga in therapy with a female Hindu client. The value of Buddhist concepts and techniques in treating and counselling Buddhist clients, then, should be obvious. The examples provided earlier, of the uses of Buddhism in therapeutic settings in Japan and Sri Lanka, provide empirical support for this. Secondly, Buddhism has always had a counselling and therapeutic role, in the wide sense, in Buddhist communities. Even in the present day, Buddhist monks are turned to for advice, support and counselling, by lay Buddhists. This happens in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere (see Gombrich, 1988). The Buddhist monk is seen as someone who can take a detached and objective view of a problem, and provide sensible solutions, or at least support and consolation. This tradition is historically well-grounded, as the Buddha himself (563-83 BC) was, in his life, very much a counsellor in this way. The life of this Buddha is replete with examples of the Master providing emotional support and comfort, and often advice and counselling, to those who needed help (Kalupahana and Kalupahana, 1982; Saddhatissa, 1970). Some of these instances are striking for their dramatic quality, as in the case of Patacara. This young woman's infant son died, and she carried the body of the child asking anyone and everyone to restore him to life. Eventually she came to the Buddha. The Buddha said to her that he would indeed restore her son to life, but in order to do so he needed some mustard seeds from a household where no one had ever died. The young mother then went from house to house, asking at each if there had ever been any deaths there. During this exercise, the truth dawned on her, as the inevitability of death became clear to her disconsolate mind. This facilitated not only her acceptance that her child was no more, but also her insight into the human predicament. This story, not untypical of the Buddha's dealings with lay persons, is fully recounted in several sources (e.g. de Silva, 1984). The Buddha also often offered advice to husbands, wives, parents, masters, servants, the royalty, and those in various professions, who had problems. This is the tradition that is still found in Buddhist communities, with monks functioning in a counselling role for their lay brethren (Saddhatissa, 1970). Thirdly, Buddhism has a strong and pragmatic lay ethic which provides a framework for counselling those in need of help. Buddhism is not a religion with the ultimate and/or the hereafter as its sole concern. Much attention is paid to the day-to-day life of lay persons. Buddhism accepts that only a small minority will renounce lay life and devote themselves entirely to life of personal and spiritual development. The majority do not do this, and remain as lay persons. For them, the Buddha's advice was that they should lead a life which was conducive to the well-being of themselves and others (Saddhatissa, 1970; Tachibana, 1926). This meant that people were reminded of their duties, rights, and social and personal obligations. The criteria of what was ethically correct was whether it was conducive to the individual's or his/her fellow-beings' happiness and satisfactory living. For example, people were advised against the abuse of alcoholic substances, not because it went against some religious dogma or principle, but because the behaviour had demonstrable ill-effects. These included: loss of wealth; proneness to ill-health; proneness to socially embarrassing behaviour; disrepute; and ultimate mental derangement (see de Silva, 1983). This clearly pragmatic social ethic of Buddhism makes it particularly well placed to offer help to those who are afflicted by the day-to-day problems of living, such as grief, disappointment, anger, fear and jealousy. Finally, Buddhist literature contains references to a large number of specific strategies for behavioural change. These are clearly behavioural and cognitive strategies, as they operate directly on the behaviour or cognition in question. As has been shown in detail elsewhere (e.g. de Silva, 1984; Mikulas, 1981), these Buddhist techniques foreshadowed many of the cognitive and behavioural techniques that have been developed in recent decades in Western psychology and psychiatry. The fact that many of these techniques are more or less the same as their modern counterparts also means that they already have empirical validation, as the latter have been tested in numerous clinical trials and controlled case-studies. The repertoire of specific techniques that Buddhism has for counselling is impressive indeed. These include: systematic use of rewards and punishment; fear reduction by graded exposure; modelling; self-monitoring; stimulus control; overt and covert aversion; use of family members for implementing a behaviour-change programme; and specific techniques, including distraction and over-exposure, for unwanted intrusive cognitions. Preventive work There is a further aspect of Buddhism which is relevant to counselling in the wider sense of the term. Buddhism offers much that can help in the prophylaxis, or prevention, of psychological disorder and distress. That is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism, as its main goal is to deal with the human predicament. Alongside success, joy and happiness, life contains failure, sadness, gloom and despair. Friendships and other relationships are fraught with problems. Those we are attached to move away, or die. One may lose one's career, wealth, and offspring. Buddhism recognises, as a fundamental truth, this distressing state of affairs, which co-exists with the seemingly happy and successful aspects of life. This is the conundrum to which the Buddha devoted his life. In the present day, where competitiveness, material success, strong attachments and power are the order of the day, there are numerous inevitable problems that bring distress to one. The overall Buddhist attitude geared towards reducing attachments, and the specific techniques aimed at managing the vulnerability of the individual to the effects of the vast and powerful array of stimuli around him or her, both have something to offer in reducing the chances of distress and disorder. If one learns not to be attached too strongly to others, not to be overdependent, not to be incessantly acquisitive, not to equate happiness with material earth, power or fame, then the probability of a breakdown in such a person must be reduced. This preventive aspect is possibly one of the most valuable potential contributions of Buddhism to the practice of counselling. Both the overall philosophy and the specific behaviour-change techniques, including meditative practices, have a role to play in this context. Discussion It is not suggested that all counselling should take a Buddhist stance. Counselling needs to draw upon a wide range of sources, and Buddhism happens to be one among these sources, and a particularly rich one at that. The use of its concepts and techniques for appropriate clients and appropriate problems can only enhance the practice of counselling. The ultimate test of any technique or idea is whether it produces the desired results. The implication of this is that Buddhist ideas and techniques, used in the context of counselling, need to satisfy this test: they should have efficacy. As noted earlier. some of the specific Buddhist strategies for behavioural change already have the backing of empirical evidence. This is because their modern counterparts have been subjected to rigorous trials with various client populations. As for those Buddhist techniques and concepts that do not have modern counterparts, there is a need to evaluate them empirically. Such evaluation is entirely in keeping with the overall spirit of enquiry found in the Buddha's approach to problems. If such evaluation demonstrates that tines can produce the desired results, then they can be incorporated into the repertoire of techniques in counselling practice today. References d'Ardenne, P., and Mahtani, A.: Transcultural Counselling in Action. London: Sage, 1989. de Silva, P.: `The Buddhist Attitude to Alcoholism'. In Edwards, G., Arif, A., and Jaffe, J. (eds): Drug Use and Misuse: Cultural Perspectives. London: Croom Helm, 1983. de Silva, P.: `Buddhism and Behaviour Modification'. Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 22, 1984. de Silva, P., and Samarasinghe, D.: `Behaviour Therapy in Sri Lanka'. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 16, 1985. Gombrich, R.: Theravada Buddhism. London: Routledge, 1988. Kalupahana, D. J., and Kalupahana, I.: The Way of Siddhartha. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 1982. Kishimoto, K.: `Self-Awakening Psychotherapy for Neurosis: Attaching Importance to Oriental Thought, Especially Buddhist Thought'. Psychologia, Volume 28, 1985. Mikulas, W. L.: `Buddhism and Behaviour Modification'. The Psychological Record, Volume 31, 1981. Mikulas, W. L.: `Skills of Living. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983. Saddhatisssa, H.: Buddhist Ethics. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970. Singh, R., and Oberhummer, I.: `Behaviour Therapy Within a Setting of Karwa Yoga'. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 11, 1980. Tachibana, S.: The Ethics of Buddhism. London, Curzon, 1926. Ward, C.: `The Role and Status of Psychology in Developing Nations'. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, Volume 36, 1983. Correspondence should be addressed to: Padmal de Silva, Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF.